Fear, Force, and Leather - The Texas Prison System's First Hundred Years, 1848-1948


Rough Beginnings, 1849-1861

War and Collapse, 1861-1871

The Lease Era, 1871-1883

Convict Leasing, 1883-1909

Scandal and Reform, 1909-1911

Perpetual Inquiry, 1911-1927

Reform and Reaction, 1927-1948

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The Lease Era 1871-1883

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The Cunningham & Ellis Era

To avoid the earlier problems, the state mandated Cunningham & Ellis to maintain the prison in good repair and provided guidelines for feeding, clothing, and punishing the prisoners. The 1879 legislature authorized the governor to appoint a revamped three-man board of directors and a supervisor who would directly manage the guards, enforce discipline and ensure humane treatment of the prisoners, maintain the books and accounts, and write monthly reports. An assistant supervisor would do the same for the outside work camps. The state implemented good conduct rules by which a prisoner could earn time off his sentence.

Cunningham & Ellis made improvements to the food and the hospital at Huntsville and undertook repairs and new construction, including a brick wall that completely enclosed the prison. Most of the prisoners were put to work on sugar or cotton plantations, with a handful working on railroad construction, the building of Rusk prison, wood-chopping, or in prison shops. For the first time, the prison became profitable.

Statements on the death of Frank Furlow,  January 1877

D.M. Short to Governor Roberts, July 1879

However, continued reports of brutality made a mockery of the system in the eyes of the public. In 1882, the Legislature revoked Cunningham & Ellis’s lease and awarded contracts to several different companies.

The leasing system collapsed in 1883 when the newspaper Texas Siftings exposed the “kegs of beer, demijohns of whiskey, and black cigars” that had been used to bribe legislators to award the new contracts and turn a blind eye to escapes and inhumane treatment. Some legislators had been invited to poker games and then were allowed to win large sums of money. In the aftermath of the scandal, all of the leases were terminated.

Learn More About Thomas J. Goree

Learn more about Thomas J. Goree, the prison superintendent who insisted that Texas adopt new ideas from the emerging fields of penology and criminology.


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Page last modified: July 23, 2019